Are the 17/18 Jazz better than the 16/17 Jazz?

Jae Crowder

What a ride it has been over the course of the second half of the season for the Utah Jazz and their fans. On January 22nd, the Jazz lost to the Atlanta Hawks by 14 points, and the team saw themselves sitting at 19-28 with 35 games remaining in the season. What happened next is almost unheard of. The Jazz managed to finish the season by going 29-6 over those final 35 games of the season, and they finished the season as the fifth seed in the highly competitive Western Conference. Now, in mid-April, they currently lead the Oklahoma City Thunder 3-1 in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. If I were to tell Jazz fans back in January they would be leading 3-1 in the opening series of the playoffs, they would’ve thought I was out of my mind. Now, with the Jazz looking primed to move onto the second round of the playoffs to likely match up with the Houston Rockets, it raises the question of: “Is this year’s Jazz team better than the team with Gordon Hayward last season?”

By no means does this say that Gordon Hayward didn’t help the Jazz. He was the heart and soul of that Utah team last year that got knocked out in the second round of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors. However, this year’s Jazz team has a different feel about them. If it even seemed possible, the Utah Jazz improved on their 105.3 defensive rating from last season, which ranked third in the league. This season, that number dipped to 103.9, putting them second in the NBA. The additions of not only Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell in the offseason, but Jae Crowder at the trade deadline are the big reasons the Jazz were somehow able to improve their defensive rating this season. In addition, the Jazz had the seventh hardest schedule this season in the NBA, they had the thirteenth hardest schedule in the league last season. That makes their end of the season run that much more impressive while they knocked off teams like the Warriors, Spurs, and Raptors down the stretch of the regular season.

Another added bonus for the Jazz this season has been their pace of play, and the started (slight) movement towards the NBA’s current structure of basketball. The Jazz ranked 30th in the league last season in pace of play, averaging just 91.6 possessions per 48 minutes of play. This season, they are up to 95.7 possessions per 48 minutes. That number still ranks 25th in the NBA, but those added four possessions per 48 minutes can have a huge impact on the result of the game. Probably the biggest reason for the faster play this season is due to Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell. Rubio’s main strength on offense is getting out in the open floor and finding guys going to the hoop on the fastbreak, something Donovan Mitchell excels at. In addition to Mitchell and Rubio, Rudy Gobert has gotten much better at rim-running this season and getting position down low off of the fastbreak which has led to some easy looks for him at the rim this season.

Another sign that the Jazz have been playing faster and matching the offensive play of teams across the league is their added three-point attempts and makes this season. The Jazz shot 297 more threes this season compared to last season. And with more attempts comes more makes, as the Jazz made 96 more shots from beyond the arc this season, something they will continue to improve on.

When you match up the added pace of play for the Utah Jazz, in addition to the improved defense of the team this year, I don’t think there is any question that this year’s Jazz team is better than the 2016/17 squad. And the scary part is that this team is still very young with Donovan Mitchell being 21 years old, Rudy Gobert being 25 years old, and Ricky Rubio entering the prime of his career at 27 years old. If this core group of players can stick together and keep building chemistry with Quin Snyder, it won’t be long before this team will be an NBA Finals contender.

Photo Credits: NBA.com

Advertisements

Baller or Bust

For every John Wall, there is a Marquis Teague. For every DeMarcus Cousins, there is a Daniel Orton. For every Devin Booker, there is a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

When it comes to John Calipari, we have all seen the documentaries, read the articles, listened to the early morning ESPN rants. Say what you want about the man, but he is undoubtedly the best recruiter to ever do it. But in the words of my favorite meme: “Y tho?” Calipari gets it. He knows that these high school studs have had shady characters whispering hoop dreams into their ears ever since 9th grade. So, why not embrace the one-and-done mentality. Coach Cal did/does just this, and it has resulted in some of the most heralded recruiting classes in history.

 

I. The Sales Pitch

Spend one year at UK, then go to the NBA.

Unquestionably, this is the sales pitch Calipari throws at his recruits. The dude is not exactly coy about it, either. But, does it hold merit? Can he turn these high school phenoms into NBA stars? Can he even turn them into NBA starters? Can he *gulp* even turn them into NBA players at all?

The numbers tell a tricky tale. I looked at every college-player-turned-pro that Calipari has brought in since his tenure at Kentucky began. All in all, 32 of his players have played in the NBA since Cal convinced them to become a Wildcat. For what it’s worth, these guys were top recruits. 20 of these 32 recruits were listed in the top ten for their class, according to ESPN’s rankings. Furthermore, 10 of the 32 were in the top five! So, how did their NBA careers pan out?

 

II. The Results

The classes from 2010 to 2017 churned out exactly 4 All-Stars (Wall, Boogie, KAT, AD). Devin Booker and Jamal Murray look primed for future bids, while it is still too early to make a call on guys like Fox, Randle, Monk and Bam. Perhaps more importantly, let’s figure out how many of these players are busts. Personally, I believe bust to be a subjective term but, one that is relative to draft position. For example, Kidd-Gilchrist is a bust. He was drafted second overall and it’s time to call a spade a spade. He has career averages of 9, 6 and 1, while shooting 47% from the field and hitting literally 0.1 threes per game. He isn’t the defensive menace people expected him to be either. Is this what Charlotte thought they were getting when they drafted him second, after Anthony Davis?

How many other busts are there and who are they? I counted six. In order of draft class, they are, Orton, Knight, MKG, Teague, Goodwin and Young. Plain and simple, these guys either busted their way out of the league or, have massively underproduced. In other words, if redrafts were happening for each respective class only 1 of these players (MKG) would be taken in the top 20!

What about names like Bledsoe and Randle? I broke this list down into people who are not All-Stars (yet), but still NBA caliber players. They are the two aforementioned players as well as Kanter, Noel, Lyles, Booker, Murray, Skal, Fox, Monk and Bam. Notice that these hoopers all declared when they were freshman…

 

III. The Pattern

So what do we make of this list? Things clear up when observing what year of college these players were in when they were drafted. Every single All-Star left as a freshman. Intriguingly enough, every player I labeled a “bust” also left after their freshman campaign. Is there a reason for this? In back-to-back-to-back years, John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague were all brought into UK. They were each an ESPN top 10 recruit and with the exception of Knight, the top point guard in their class (Knight was second only to that Irving guy). Do you think that Brandon Knight commits to UK if he believes John Wall is sticking around another year? Me neither. But here’s another question. Do you think Knight would have returned for his sophomore year if Teague had never committed to UK? There is some element of pressure for these top recruits to turn pro after one year because, like it or not, some other NBA-worthy stud is coming for your spot next year.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s look at the stretch of centers who ran through Kentucky from 2010 to 2017.

– 2009: Boogie Cousins and Daniel Orton (ESPN 4th and 13th overall recruit)

– 2010: Enes Kanter (23rd)

– 2011: Anthony Davis (1st)

– 2012: Nerlens Noel and Willy Cauley-Stein (1st and 40th)

– 2013: Dakari Johnson (7th)

– 2014: Karl Anthony-Towns (9th)

– 2015: Skal Labissiere and Isaac Humphries (2nd and 49th)

– 2016: Bam Adebayo (5th)

– 2017: Nic Richards (17th)

Good luck finding playing time if you stick around an extra year.

IV. The Freshman-Sophomore Theory

Out of every center on that list, Cauley-Stein is the only one who stayed multiple years at UK and has experienced NBA success. Johnson stayed a few years and has played a total of 30 games in the NBA, all coming this year. Humphries hasn’t even sniffed the league. Look at some guys who may have felt pressured to leave prematurely. Orton may have heard the hype from Enes Kanter (who ironically did not play at UK) and decided to turn pro. Noel would have had to compete with both WCS and Johnson for minutes. Skal knew that Bam was coming to town. Conversely, Bam surely was aware that Richards, as well as other talented frontcourt players, would soon be wearing Wildcat blue.

Finally, let’s look at everyone UK player that has declared for the NBA draft. This time, however, we will look through a special lens and only look at players who were non-freshman when they left. The list:

– 2012: Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb (18th and 42nd pick)

– 2015: WCS, the Harrison Twins and Johnson (6th, 44th, UD and 48th)

– 2016: Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress (34th and UD)

– 2017: Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries (UD and UD)

Only two of these players are seeing meaningful minutes in today’s game (Ulis and WCS.) Sure, Andrew Harrison has started games for the Grizzlies this year; however, let’s not kid ourselves. The only players who currently deserve time in the Association are Ulis and Cauley-Stein. Jones flamed out, while Lamb, Johnson, Poythress, Briscoe, Humphries and the Harrison brothers are “cup of coffee” guys at best.

Simply put, if you want to make it in the NBA, do not stay at Kentucky past one year. But, if you are going to leave as a freshman, you better be damn good. It’s no coincidence that all 6 busts left after only a single year. Piece of advice; don’t commit to Kentucky if you are not sure you will be ready for the NBA after a single season. After all, 13 out of the 32 Calipari/Kentucky players who have declared for the draft are currently fighting for the NBA careers. That’s a 40% bust rate folks. Beware.

Photo Credits: Lexington Herald Leader, NBC Sports

Tratorade

Trae Young

When I learned that Trae Young was going to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, my mind began racing. No, it did not immediately think about which teams would be a good landing spot for the Oklahoma product. Rather, I began to think of all the hate articles that would be coming out. Me, on the other hand, will be going in an opposite direction. But first, you will not believe some of the outdated criticism Trae Young is facing nowadays…

 

Exhibit A: An Eastern Conference Scout sours on Young due to his lack of mid-range game. Yes, you read that correctly. If you still can’t believe it, see for yourself. The quote was featured in a recent Bleacher Report article.

In the words of every confused Hoophead out there…Wait, what? Speaking from experience, I personally cannot go 4 minutes without harping on Andrew Wiggins’ mid-range Js. I hate on his 17 foot pull-up as often as 15-year-olds refresh Instagram. And for good reason. For all those living under a rock (with meme celebrity Patrick Star), James Harden is going to win this year’s MVP award. The Beard will do so by eliminating mid-range Js from his game. In a literal sense, the dude scores one of three ways: shooting 3s, getting layups, or getting fouled. Check out how eerily similar his stat line is when compared to Young’s. Harden is putting up 20.4 shots per game and knocking them down at a 44.6% clip. Young put up 19.3 shots a game and hit 42.2% of them. In addition, Harden attempts 10.2 threes per contest and makes 36.2% of them. Similarly, Young attempted 10.3 threes per game and made 36% of them in his only season at Oklahoma. Finally, the free throw numbers are very similar. Both players attempt(ed) over 8.5 free throws per game and make more than 86% of those shots, terrific numbers.

What’s the point of this? To say that Trae Young is the next James Harden? No! But, look at how similar the FGA stats are, as well as the 3PA and FTA stats are. The percentages align also. If James Harden can have success with this modern 3P-or-Layup formula, why can’t Trae? The game is trending towards the way the OU guard plays, not away from it.

 

Exhibit B: NBA Scout knocks Young for his measurables: “I was never high on him to begin with because of his physical limitations, lack of athleticism and how he doesn’t defend. He’s not someone I would take in the lottery. He’s a good backup to me.”

A common criticism, this is one I will relish debunking. In today’s NBA, there is an obvious shift occurring. Mastery at a skill is a requirement in the modern game, no longer just a helpful accessory. If you are a big man who cannot perform well at either shooting threes, protecting the rim, or switching on PnRs…good luck. Ask Jah Okafor how he’s doing nowadays. How often do we see promising wings drafted because of their physical profile simply disappear from the League due to a lack of a jumper? It’s the reason Stanley Johnson will take 1,000 threes a day this summer. His career depends on it. Yes, skill is beginning to take precedence over physical profile.

And now, a list of players with similar builds to Trae Young- players that have excelled despite their height, wingspan and athletic limitations: Steph, Kyrie, IT, Kyle Lowry, Prime Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Kemba Walker, C.J. McCollum, and CP3.

At 6’4”, Nash may be the tallest of this group with Deron Williams (6’6.5”) claiming the best wingspan. None of these guys ever truly play(ed) above the rim. Instead, most of them relied on a lethal three pointer to open up the floor for them. Defenders will have to do the same for Trae. Will he routinely bomb treys from 30+ feet out? No. But once that guy gets even remotely close to the three-point line, defenders MUST guard him. I mean, if you can’t tell how deep he was when he drained this one against Arkansas, I sarcastically pointed it out for you.

Exhibit C: Scouts believe Young has a “slight build.” I agree. The kid is maybe 180 pounds soaking wet. Want to know something else that is true. He is 19-years-old. Do yourself a favor and Google what some of your favorite players looked like in college. Not everyone enters the League with a Guerschon Yabusele body. Again, I am not referencing a superstar for the sake of associating Trae Young with their talent level yet, Steph Curry had build issues as well. Everyone was worried about his ankles. Read this ESPN piece about how Curry changed his health by working on his core. Of course, Young does not share these ankles concerns. So why reference this story? The moral is that it is 2018 and if a trainer can fix someone’s ankles by strengthening their abs, I think Trae Young will find a way to build NBA-level stamina.

Is Young going to be the next NBA superstar? The odds say no. Despite these odds, fans and scouts alike need to stop committing the primordial crime of NBA armchair management: Overthinking. The kid struggled this year because teams figured out how to stop him. They threw him double and triple teams while constantly hitting him hard. Yeah, that would slow down even the best of players. Let’s not act like Young was playing with a cast of fellow draft picks, either. NBA spacing, paired with better teammates, will do wonders for Young. He won’t feel the need to jack up hero-balls the second he sees daylight; something he did too much of at OU. Sure, he has weaknesses. Young must become a better quarterback, too many of his passes end up in turnovers and too many of his shots give me Wiggins PTSD. Still, he’ll be just fine. Think C.J. McCollum with better vision. Worst case, the guy Jamal Crawford’s his way through the League for a decade.

The NBA GM who takes Young as the first guard off the board will have to trust his gut. And boy, can it pay off mightily.

Photo Credits: Spark Sports